Do you think it possible that we could see a world where extreme poverty is the rare exception and sufficiency for all the rule?
Many people say no. They imagine the world today is much the same as the world of fifty years ago – a wealthy, industrialised group of countries with growing prosperity and a group of desperately poor countries stuck in poverty. Only the communist bloc has disappeared.
The reality is very different. Not only are a number of countries – eg China, India, Vietnam – experiencing rapid economic growth, but across the world poverty rates are falling, often quite dramatically. The year I turned five more than 18 million children died before their fifth birthday, almost all in poor countries and most from preventable causes. Today that number has been reduced by more than half. When I was in year 10 at school over half the world’s population lived on less than $1.25 a day. Today less than one-quarter do. The year I completed theological college one-quarter of people on the planet were drinking dirty water. Today only one-tenth do.
This is remarkable progress which, if continued, would see extreme poverty, that brutal existence in which people cannot afford their most basic needs, virtually wiped from the face of the earth within the next fifty years.
There are two objections to this scenario, one theological and one political. The theological objection runs like this: Jesus said “the poor you will always have with you”. This is taken by some to mean that there is little that can be done to eradicate poverty. I think this misunderstands Jesus.
Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 15, which addresses the existence of poverty in a subsistence agriculture economy like Israel’s. In such an economy people grow their own food on small plots of land. Hunger is only ever one unharvested, failed or stolen crop away. One can imagine the downward spiral this might set in motion. Unable to eat the household would be forced to sell their land, which would get them food now but leave them in an even more exposed situation next season.
To combat this the Law provided that those plunged into poverty be provided with interest free loans. This would allow a household to buy food, seeds for the following season, and to keep their land. What’s more, the calendar was divided into seven year blocks, and at the end of every block all debts were to be forgiven. No debt was to become unsustainable.
Deuteronomy 15 is focussed on this. It commands the Israelites to “be generous and open handed” to the poor, that is, to provide those interest free loans even if it was only months until the year for debt forgiveness.
So the whole point of the passage is to say that poverty should only ever be a temporary phenomenon. Whenever anyone’s crop failed an interest free loan would see their hardship quickly dealt with. Because there would always be households where the harvest failed there would always be a need for interest free loans to ensure those households did not stay stuck in poverty.
When Jesus quotes this verse should we not assume he knew its meaning? The disciples have criticised a woman who, in an act of love, anoints Jesus with an expensive perfume. The money, they argued, could have gone to the poor. Jesus responds by quoting Deuteronomy 15 – the poor will always be with you. Presumably his point is to affirm their ongoing responsibility to the poor while not being so reductionist about it that they can’t appreciate the woman’s act of devotion.
So in Jesus’ statement there is no valid objection to eradicating extreme poverty.
There is a much more valid political/theological objection – the misuse of power. We live in a world where there is sufficient for all. The reason extreme poverty exists is that we have chosen to accept it, to embrace socio-political-economic systems that reward some while excluding others. We rightly object to corrupt dictators funneling a few billion into Swiss bank accounts but turn a blind eye to the $650 billion and more that multinationals take out of developing countries every year via illegal tax evasion. We jump for joy at $5 tee-shirts and $10 soccer balls, while conveniently forgetting they are made in developing world sweat shops marked by poverty level wages, child labour and dangerous working conditions.
Within poor countries elites capture the lion’s share of wealth and women, the disabled and cultural minorities are often marginalised.
Some countries find the pathway to sustainable economic growth difficult due to factors such as being landlocked, like Nepal, with no access to ports, so vital to developing export markets, other than through neighbouring countries; or because conflict riven like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan.
On top of all this climate change threatens to create havoc in the lives of poor countries and poor people.
So continued progress in the fight against poverty is not guaranteed. Yes, the low-hanging fruit has been picked first, but at the same time the astonishing retreat of poverty over the last fifty years gives me cause for hope. If the world community is vigilant, and even if they’re not, if those who are poor continue to seize their often meagre opportunities, then there is good cause to believe that by the time my grandchildren are my age theirs will be a world where aid agency workers like me will be out of a job.